British campaigners and politicians on both sides of the debate over the UK’s membership of the EU today were swift to cite the Brussels terror attacks as evidence to support their points of view on the Brexit referendum.
Central to the arguments were the Schengen passport-free travel zone, its possible security implications, and whether EU membership made Britons more or less safe.
Four British nationals were injured in the attack and, at time of writing, one Briton is missing. After the bombings, border controls were reinstated in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
The arguments were given added impetus by the backdrop of the ongoing migration crisis, which has been linked to terrorism and has pushed Schengen to its limits.
Immigration and control of borders is also one of the key issues of the Brexit debate. Bookmakers in the UK, which is not a member of Schengen, have narrowed the odds on Brexit in the wake of the attacks.
Leave.EU founder Arron Banks today said in a statement, “An American politician once said that immigration without assimilation equals invasion – and he was right.”
Denis MacShane, was Tony Blair’s Europe Minister and has written a book on Brexit. He told EURACTIV, “Predictably the Brexit crowd are out trying to use the Brussels atrocity as a reason for Brexit and to denounce Schengen.
“They appear to have forgotten the 7/7 London Underground and bus Islamist suicide bombs of 2005. The UK is not in Schengen and UK security and intelligence services were no better than Belgian police in spotting the killers and preventing the attack.”
“At least with the European Arrest Warrant the UK could get one of the terrorists returned to Britain from Rome,” he added.
Peter Wilding of pro-EU campaign group British Influence said, “Immigration cannot be used to dog-whistle prejudice in order to hasten Brexit.
“Brits are bigger than that. And the issue of EU membership is wider and more historic. This is a once in a lifetime decision.
“Combatting terror needs cooperation not isolation because terror knows no borders.”
The European Commission today (23 March) said that the attacks proved the need for cooperation of national intelligence agencies through EU structures.
Commission President Jean-Claude Junker called for the creation of a “Security Union” in a joint press conference with French Minister Manuel Valls.
France was also victim to a shocking terrorist outrage in November as well as the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
British Commissioner Jonathan Hill tweeted it was important to keep the Schengen and terrorism issues separate in any debate.
What can we do? Greater cooperation between Member States. Sharing lessons learnt. Greater common approaches @BBCr4today
— Jonathan Hill (@JHillEU) March 23, 2016
Leading politicians Theresa May, the Conservative Home Secretary, and Andy Burnham, her Labour shadow, both supported that view in a debate in the House of Commons.
The UK has intelligence and security services which are the envy of the world,” she said, “We must continue to share intelligence with our partners, and encourage them to do likewise.”
“Each time the terrorists attack, they aim to divide us. Each time they have failed.”
— Sky News (@SkyNews) March 23, 2016
British police are embedded with Belgian authorities, it was revealed, and helped in the hunt for Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested by cops last week.
In an interview with The Times published on the day of the attacks, Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May said that “the EU brought added security”.
“There are things we can do as members of the European Union in terms of the exchange of information and data, but also working together within the EU that is of benefit in terms of catching criminals,” she said.
But former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who is campaigning for out, gave a speech last night comparing the Schengen area to “hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe.”
Speaking to centre-right think tank Politeia, he said, “The European Union, in its current form, is a flawed and failing project which is making many of its inhabitants poorer than they should or need be and is failing to keep its people safe.”
Howard, a former home secretary, claimed he had written the speech before the attacks.
After yesterday’s bombings the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party sent a press release blaming the attack on the Schengen visa-free travel soon.
The missive drew a flurry of criticism on social media, culminating in British Prime Minister David Cameron branding it “not appropriate”.
UKIP defence spokesman Mike Hookem today stood by his earlier comment that “The fact that terrorists can strike at the heart of the EU with apparent ease shows that they are perfectly placed to exploit the lax security situation created by Schengen agreement and the EU’s open door policies.”
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, was criticised for retweeting this tweet by Telegraph journalist Alison Pearson.
Brussels, de facto capital of the EU, is also the jihadist capital of Europe. And the Remainers dare to say we're safer in the EU! #Brexit
— Allison Pearson (@allisonpearson) March 22, 2016
Denis MacShane said, “Like Donald Trump’s stupid remarks on Muslims, the Brexiteers in Britain will go as low as possible to exploit a tragedy like Brussels to justify leaving Europe.
“But the betting odds on Brexit shortened as a result of the Brussels bombs and the image of a continent where Islamist ideology converts people into suicide bombers helps accentuate the negative image of Europe promoted by our off-shore owned anti-EU press as well as Tory-UKIP supporters of Brexit.”
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) March 22, 2016